Children in foster care are more likely than children and youth who are not involved in child welfare to have been exposed to trauma, more likely to have changed schools, more likely to have moved from one home to another, and less likely to have access to comprehensive assessments. As a result of these life experiences and system failures, children and youth in foster care are more likely to have difficulty in school than other children and youth. Many adopted children and youth have difficulty as well. For example, foster children and youth are more likely to repeat a grade, do worse on standardized tests, or drop out of school. Many foster children and youth change schools far too often as they change foster care placements, and school changes hinder academic achievement. Foster children and youth and those adopted from care are also more likely to receive or need special educational services than other children and youth. Many of these children and youth also have behavioral issues or special needs that may make succeeding in school more challenging.

Too often, foster children and youth are automatically placed in special education simply because of their foster care status rather than having the benefit of rigorous assessment of their actual needs and strengths. On the other hand, due to the frequent moves and instability in their lives, there are many children and youth in foster care who could benefit from special education supports who slip through the cracks and never receive needed services.   

Adopted and foster children and youth also too often face school assignments (such as family trees, autobiographies, or baby picture contests) and language (“natural” or “real” instead of “birth” parent; “children of their own and an adopted child”) that isolates them and affects their school experience.

In addition, there is growing recognition that children and youth in foster care receive harsher discipline—including more frequent suspensions, expulsions, and police intervention—than their non-foster care peers. This phenomenon contributes to significant numbers of foster youth crossing over to the juvenile or criminal justice system and it adversely affects their academic achievement. 

Improvements in each school district’s special educational services for all children with special needs would help many foster and adopted children and youth. In addition, the education and child welfare systems should partner with each other to improve outcomes specifically for foster and adopted children and youth, to ensure they have greater school continuity, appropriate special education assessments and assignments, educational achievement, and academic success. Schools and their child welfare partners should see each child or youth as an individual—with strengths and challenges—and seek to provide educational and support services to meet the individual child or youth’s needs. In addition, schools and the child welfare system must actively engage families—birth, kinship, foster, and adoptive—in all areas of a child’s or youth’s education, ensuring that they operate as a team to achieve the best educational outcomes possible.

Policy Recommendations

Policymakers should:

  • In the U.S., ensure full implementation of the educational stability provisions of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act, and implement comparable provisions across Canada, including:
    • Requiring the child welfare agency to consider school and educational issues in placement decisions
    • Keeping the child or youth in the same school if possible
    • If the child or youth must change schools, requiring collaboration to ensure prompt enrollment
    • Allowing transportation to school to be covered as a foster care payment
    • Monitoring enrollment and attendance
    • Ensuring that youth at risk of aging out of care have a transition plan that includes an education plan
  • In the U.S., ensure full implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and implement comparable provisions across Canada, including:
    • Mandating that services be tailored to the child or youth’s individual needs instead of his or her particular disability or disabilities
    • Requiring that individualized education plan (IEP) teams consider all factors—including a student’s behavior—that impede learning
    • Outlining discipline procedures and services that children and youth must receive when removed from school
    • Completing a student’s initial special education evaluation within a specified time, even if the student changes districts
    • Maintaining comparable services in an IEP even if a student changes districts in the middle of the school year
    • Ensuring the fast transfer of all school records
    • Require local education agencies to help ensure educational stability, just as the Fostering Connections Act required child welfare agencies to address this issue. States, provinces, tribes, First Nations, territories, and local districts should also eliminate rules that tie attendance strictly to residence and those that require certain records for enrollment.
  • Ensure courts have oversight of foster children and youth’s education, and require educational needs and progress be discussed during court hearings.
  • Enable schools and child welfare agencies to share information with one another about a child or youth’s education needs and progress, while continuing to protect the child or youth’s privacy; the U.S. Uninterrupted Scholars Act of 2012 is a step in the right direction and must be widely publicized and fully implemented to improve information sharing among government agencies to improve educational outcomes for children in foster care.
  • Require the education and child welfare systems to collaborate to create an electronic, accessible educational passport for each child and youth in care, with the passport to include educational records, academic performance data, and other relevant information and to help ensure the smooth transfer of credits across jurisdictions
  • Fund and implement tuition waiver programs to ensure that youth who are in foster care at age 16 or older have expanded access to education at public colleges and universities in their community
  • In the U.S., maintain and more fully fund the Education and Training Voucher program for youth aging out of foster care and youth adopted as teens; implement a comparable program in Canada  

Practice Recommendations

States, provinces, territories, First Nations, tribes, and local educational agencies should: 

  • Promote collaboration among child welfare and education agencies, including co-locating staff in local offices, identifying specific educational liaisons to the child welfare system and child welfare liaisons to the education system, and coordinating and funding transportation to schools when necessary for children and youth who change placements
  • Jointly train teachers, school social workers, and other educational professionals about the specific needs of foster and adopted children and youth, including attachment issues, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the effects of trauma, grief and loss, and other common issues in foster care and adoption
  • Encourage parents and the school system to use all legal mechanisms to identify and support children and youth with special needs, including section 504 plans in the U.S. and the Identification Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) process in Canada
  • Avoid placing a child or youth into special education status simply because he or she is in foster care; instead ensure that each student receives a comprehensive assessment of his or her individual capabilities and needs
  • Prevent unnecessary school moves; if such moves are necessary, ensure easy transfer of records and prevent loss of credits
  • Implement credit recovery programs to help students who have lost credits due to moves
  • Create flexibility in school rules and regulations so that educational systems respond to the specific needs of each child and youth, such as allowing children and youth who would benefit to attend mainstream school part of the day and attend special classes or be home schooled for other parts of the day
  • Remove any policy or practice barriers so that foster children and youth are able to fully participate in extracurricular activities, arts, and sports
  • Implement effective anti-bullying programs; educate teachers and educational professionals about the increased likelihood of bullying for foster and adopted children and youth and children and youth with special needs
  • Educate and engage all parents and caregivers about their rights and the rights of their children and youth and the importance of caregivers’ proactive role in supporting the desired educational outcomes for the children and youth in their care
  • Engage students in their education; empower them to advocate for their own educational needs and goals
  • Ensure that the schools communicate clearly and regularly with foster children’s and youth’s caregivers and workers
  • For foster children and youth, ensure that both their foster parent and worker are at IEP meetings and understand and agree to the plan; make allowances for birth parents, foster parents, and adoptive parents to jointly attend such meetings when a placement or permanency transition is imminent
  • Create a program in each community that provides educational advocates for foster children and youth who are struggling in school to help ensure that the school is able to meet their needs
  • Provide positive behavioral supports to address behavior problems, including providing services to keep children and youth in inclusive settings and offering special educational settings and classes for youth with behavior problems but not learning disabilities
  • Ensure that policies and procedures are in place so that foster children and youth do not receive harsher disciplinary actions than other children and youth; train teachers and other school staff about the reality that foster children and youth often receive disparate treatment
  • Ensure that school assignments are respectful of foster and adopted children and youth; train teachers to use positive adoption and foster care language choices and to avoid or provide alternatives to assignments that involve family trees or baby pictures that are difficult for children not living with their birth family
  • Increase access to early childhood education programs (such as Head Start) for foster children ages birth to five and, in the U.S., ensure that foster children ages birth to five are appropriately assessed for early intervention services under IDEA Part C
  • Offer services for older foster youth and youth adopted as teens to increase their readiness for post-secondary education, inform them of and connect them to post-secondary educational opportunities, and provide them with mentors and other supportive services to increase success during post-secondary education
  • Collect data about educational outcomes of foster children and youth; analyze data to identify successful educational supports and programs that can be replicated

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The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) supports, educates, inspires, and advocates so adoptive families thrive and every child in foster care has a permanent, safe, loving family.


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